Dispelling Myths, Making Movements
December 1, 2013
Scholar and labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr. was on a flight from San Jose to San Diego, Calif., in early 2011 when he struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to him about the book he was reading, Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity.
After Fletcher explained a bit about what the book was about, the woman asked him an earnest question: “What’s a union?”
As Fletcher notes in his book “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths about Unions, he went “on to explain what a union was and gave her a couple of examples, such as teachers’ union,” but after the woman nodded politely, he realized she didn’t quite get it.
“It seemed I was explaining something with which she was, apparently, entirely unfamiliar,” he wrote. “What made this both perplexing yet instructive is that this was obviously an intelligent individual, and I fear her ignorance is emblematic of many Americans who don’t fundamentally understand the raison d’être behind the labor movement.”
As the union for all graduate assistants at SIUC, GAU is a part of that movement. Like Fletcher, we hope to clarify through dialogue and action our own raison d’être with respect to the larger social context.
We can start first by clarifying what a union is.
Fletcher draws on organizer Bob Muehlenkamp to define a union simply as “an organization of workers” – or more specifically, “an organization based upon collective self-interest that focuses on issues relative to work, specifically, and to the economy, more generally.” He notes that a union “seeks to bargain on behalf of a group of workers to improve their living and working conditions,” and in the best cases tries “to democratize the workplace.”
In our basic FAQs with flyers translated into a dozen different languages, we define a union as “a group of individuals who support each other by sharing knowledge and working together,” and our union specifically aims to “make sure that graduate students have a happy, safe, and productive work environment.”
Fletcher clarifies the basics of unionism in his book by de-bunking dominant myths about organized labor. One myth from which the title is derived – “Unions are bankrupting us and destroying the economy” – “isn’t based on fact, but rather, derives from an ideological narrative,” he wrote.
He points to the polarization of wealth as a trend far more deleterious to the economy. In fact, unions, one important study showed, have actually had positive impacts on productivity.
Yet when wealth polarizes, decision-making power reflexively concentrates in fewer hands, and that power is often wielded in such a way that produces policies conducive to concentrating political-economic power even more.
The associated influence can be used to polarize wealth and authority to an even greater degree. Yet unions can be a “countervailing force” as they endeavor “to distribute more fairly the results of the labor of the workers,” Fletcher wrote, drawing on ideas from economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
“Therefore, when you see something in the newspaper that says that a union hurts profitability, this does not necessarily mean what the media is asking you to believe,” Fletcher admonished. “It is not saying that the union is driving the company out of business, but rather it is probably saying that the union wants to make sure that the workers receive a better bargain for all they put into bringing about the company’s profits.”
The circumstances vis-à-vis administration and unions in a university setting are similar, but different.
GAU seeks to ensure Graduate Assistants receive a fair wage for the work they put into making our University run by teaching, listening, learning, researching and (unfortunately) providing (far too) cheap labor so that SIUC functions. We may not run the University, but we make the University run.
Another myth Fletcher dissects in his book – “If unions are so good, why aren’t they growing?” – deserves extra attention.
In adducing reasons for the general lack of growth of unions, he cites amplified employer power over workers, nation-wide decreases in jobs during the recession in the early 1980s, growth of new sectors in the economy unions have failed to organize, strategies of “industrial jurisprudence” amounting to complacent attitudes toward organizing and education, “narrow interpretation of ‘economic issues’” effectively putting “matters of race and gender on the back burner,” and an outdated National Labor Relations Act impeding union fertility.
“The challenge of technology and changes in the production process,” is another factor Fletcher mentioned.
Although unions were slow to utilize new media venues, Fletcher lamented, information and communication technologies (ICTs) still offer an array of opportunities to activists in all spheres struggling for socio-economic justice.
Fletcher does not cite them all, but examples abound. The Independent Media Center movement arose during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, and functioned in tandem with the greater Global Justice Movement to offer an online alternative media platform for activists concerned with issues at both the local and supranational level.
A little more than a decade later, Tunisian activists used social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to generate a ripple effect that cascaded throughout the Middle East, Zahera Harb documented.
“Tunis, Tunisia, June 2011. The room was large, with posters from the North African trade union movement on the walls, beautifully designed and historically intriguing,” Fletcher recounted in his book, as he laid bare the last myth on his list: “If Unions are so great, why aren’t more people around the world forming them?”
“Yet the room was very modest, as were the individuals from the Tunisian labor movement sitting across from me,” Fletcher wrote. “They described the events surrounding the Tunisian revolution, which occurred earlier in the year. What was particularly striking was the role the main federation of labor unions in Tunisia, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), played in the revolution. They stepped forward in the midst of unfolding events and helped topple the Ben Ali dictatorship that had, until 2011, seemed impervious to assault.”
Fletcher continued to explain what the Tunisian labor organizers cited as one of their most pressing challenges: their huge growth – from 30 to 40 percent since the start of that year. Professionals in the region, previously disinterested in the movement, started to unionize.
Despite a whole host of economic restructuring consequences since the 1970s – flexible labor regimes, a precarious workforce and unenforced labor laws – Fletcher suggests new union responses hold promise.
“While it’s been the case that union membership has declined globally, the situation becomes complicated when one looks closely at individual countries,” he wrote. “One finds that when unions are understood as instruments for the broader fight against injustice, they can grow by leaps and bounds.”
Fletcher highlights “the need for a re-formed labor movement,” “a new unionism,” and a kind of “community unionism,” that links workers’ issues to issues in the surrounding environs while also confronting gender oppression.
“In a somewhat different category, but nevertheless, also worth noting,” Fletcher added, “has been the increased importance of alliance building between unions and other social movements in the fight for common objectives,” in addition to strengthening relationships with workers across borders.
In the same vein, GAU has provided a platform for speaking out on the inequalities of gendered labor and we’ve relayed important lessons gleaned from unionized women resisting attacks to education beyond our borders. We continue to struggle alongside allies for social justice within the University community while trying to bolster democracy in education and education for democracy.
We have tried to learn from past mistakes in the labor movement. Hence, we seek to understand the movement-media interplay noted above. We try to make the most of available electronic information systems – via our website, the GAU Facebook page and our email newsletters to better communicate with members – and potential members.
Fletcher offers some concluding thoughts, and entreats readers to “consider a range of possibilities,” that apply here.
“If you work somewhere that has a union, get involved. If you aren’t a member, join. If you are a member, get active. Don’t accept what you might’ve heard in the media; investigate and figure out what’s actually going on. You don’t have to throw yourself totally into the union; take up something that you’re comfortable doing.”
To be sure, we want to collaborate with you in whatever capacity you are able. And maybe we can dispel some more myths in the process.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.